Football is a confidence game and this is especially true with college football where you are dealing with kids barely old enough to legally drink. Arizona State Sun Devils coach Dennis Erickson knows that and understands that his team might have to face the Oregon Ducks again in a possible Pac-12 Championship game. So instead of focusing on the talent gap coming out of Saturday's loss in Eugene, the message focused on something fixable.
"I'm disappointed in the outcome. I'm disappoint in some of the penalties we had. I'm not disappointed in the effort and how hard we played. It showed me that we can beat anybody we play if we do the right things," Erickson said after the Sun Devils practice on Tuesday.
It's not as if there weren't plenty of mistakes for Erickson to talk about. The Devils racked up eight flags for 95 yards and they are tied for 117th out of 120 FBS schools with 54 penalties on the season.
There's no question this is an area of improvement but coming off this game, against this opponent, it also is a convenient message to his team and much better than the alternative.
The ASU defense was beat through the air for 187 yards and two touchdowns in the first half alone by a quarterback who only threw for a 101 total yards against the University of Arizona's defense. In the second half with Darron Thomas out due to a knee injury, the defense didn't adjust to back up quarterback Bryan Bennett's ability to run until it was too late and he put 14 quick points on the board.
Offensively, the Sun Devils scored 17 points in the first half and 7 more points on the first drive of the second half. For there they only managed three more points against an Oregon defense that will give up numbers and in a game where they had seven possessions in the second half alone.
Quarterback Brock Osweiler talked about discipline as well but it wasn't just about penalties.
"I thought we were undisciplined in certain areas trying to break out of things we would normally do and kind of do something on your own and that's what hurt us," Owieler said. "If we just do what we're taught to do and coached to do and run our offense, we're the only people that can truly stop us."
Erickson specifically cited the penalties in the first half , "You can go through four or five different scenarios that hurt us. I think it was more the amount than it was one individual thing and they were all pretty much made in the first half."
Three critical penalties stand out in the first half and none lead directly to a touchdown without several other factors coming into play.
1st - The Ducks started with great field position on the ASU 47 after a 23-yard punt return. Vontaze Burfict was flagged for 15 yards for a late hit on a questionable call that moved the ball from the ASU 31 to the ASU 16. The Ducks ran it in on the next play. If the Sun Devils cover the punt better or do a better job in the red zone the penalty is not nearly so costly.
2nd - Roughing the passer called on Bo Moos on 3rd and 12 with the ball on the Oregon 12. That kept the drive alive but the Ducks scored with a 45 yard pass and then a 28 yard touchdown pass. The penalty hurt but the defense still allowed two big pass plays after the flag.
3rd - At the end of the first half, ASU was up 17-14 and driving for another score. They completed a pass to the Oregon 22 but Gerrell Robinson was flagged for a personal foul after he kicked the defender after the play. That turned a 1st and 10 into a 1st and 25 and Osweiler ended up throwing an interception that was returned to the 50.
With under a minute on the clock, the Ducks scored on three plays with three passes for 11, 27 and 12 yards. That turned a 17-14 ASU lead with a chance to score into a 21-17 lead for the Ducks. The Robinson foul, the Owseiler interception and the Ducks quick score was the key sequence in the game.
Burfict had another personal foul for a late hit in the first half but the Sun Devils intercepted the ball on the next play which negated that mistake.
Those were big plays but good teams overcome those kinds of mistakes. Oregon had their share as well in the first half.
Late in the first quarter the Ducks had a 59-yard touchdown run negated by a penalty and ended up turning the ball over on downs. They also had a 15-yard person foul on ASU's first touchdown drive and another personal foul late in the half. Down 17-14 in the second quarter, the Ducks had a drive stalled by a personal foul that turned a 1st and 10 into a 1st and 25 which resulted in a punt.
In his half time interview with ESPN, coach Chip Kelly pointed out these mistakes, "We've got to play with poise and play with emotion but don't let emotion play with us. That stuff's not part of football."
ASU had five first half penalties with three being critical. Oregon had four first half penalties with three being critical.
The mistakes hurt the Sun Devils but only because they couldn't defend against Thomas through the air in the first half, couldn't stop the run in the second half when the Ducks back-up QB wasn't a threat to throw, and because they scored just 10 points on seven possessions in the second half.
Erickson's message about discipline and mistakes is important but it's also useful cover for the talent gap between these two teams that might face each other again this season.